Now entering its 16th year, the Madden franchise is now the undisputed king of the gridiron, thanks in no small part to the exclusive deal that EA signed with the NFL. The gang at Tiburon promise that they're not just going to sit back and rest on their laurels and that Madden 06 will be the most realistic simulation of the sport yet. I recently spent some time with the game, and spoke at length with one of the team members working on the game, and found out quite a bit about Madden 06.
At E3, the game's all new passing system, QB Vision Control, was finally unveiled. The new QB Vision Control lets you scan the field, look off defenders, and make perfect throws within your quarterback's unique field of vision. The amount of area that the QB Vision covers is directly related to the QB's awareness rating. Someone like Peyton Manning or Brett Favre will be able to see a good chunk of the field, while less talented QB's, like Patrick Ramsey or Aaron Brooks will see significantly less. Passes thrown to a target that you're looking at are going to be more accurate, but like in the NFL, if you stare down a receiver too long, your opponent's got a good chance to read the play. If you decide to throw a pass to a receiver that is outside your field of vision, the ball won't go anywhere near its intended target. This felt a bit exaggerated, since the passes were laughably off the mark, but it certainly forces you to utilize the system the way the developers intended. The quarterback's vision is diminished when he's on the run, which means it will be much tougher to get off an accurate pass while scrambling than it has been in previous years. One of the main benefits of this system is that it makes pocket passers more valuable, which means that you'll perhaps get to play against someone other than Mike Vick and the Falcons when you play online this year.
Many people have been skeptical of the Vision Control, myself included. I was quite impressed when it took me just a few snaps to learn how to cycle through my reads and hit my third receiver in stride. The EA rep at the kiosk pointed out that replicating the reads and progressions that a real QB has to make is just another way that Vision Control will make the game more realistic. A side effect of making the passing a bit more complicated is that blitzing feels like it's going to be more effective this year. Since you're going to be focused intently on finding and tracking an open receiver, you have less time to stare at the offensive line to see when it breaks down. After holding the ball too long and taking repeated sacks, I began to feel like Drew Bledsoe, but after a while I got the hang of things and did a bit better.
QB Precision Placement is designed to let you put the ball exactly where you want it. By moving the left analog stick in the direction you want to throw the ball, you can lead receivers on deep passes, and throw jump-balls to take advantage of a receiver's height advantage, allowing him to go right over the smaller DB to get the pass. This should help some of the game's better receivers stand out from the rest of the pack. This feature wasn't as easy to get used to as the Vision Control, as it is currently very difficult to aim your pass while scrambling. Any time I was moving up towards the line, I ended up leading a receiver, instead of hitting in the numbers.
If you're worried about the new passing modes ruining the Madden experience, fear not; as you will be free to turn it off should you find you can't handle the challenge. The computer will also be playing by the same rules, which means you'll get a chance to get the jump on passes when the opposing QB is locked in on a receiver too long.
Another small tweak that is sure to please hardcore players is that receivers will now run "smart" hot routes. Instead of catching the ball short of the first down marker or goal line, receivers will now adjust their routes on the fly to gain the necessary yards. If this does nothing but reduce the times that John Madden chastises you for coming up short on a third down pass, then I'm all for it. Receivers will now track the ball as it comes towards them, turn their head to watch the ball as they reel it in. Finally, no more over the shoulder, no-look catches.
Once the ball is in the hands of the ball carrier, you will now have the Truck Stick at your disposal to break tackles and pancake defenders. Mapped to the right analog stick, these moves are more powerful than the standard jukes, but with the increased effectiveness comes the greater risk of fumbling the ball. This felt a lot like the juke stick in the NBA Live series, and seemed right at home in Madden.
The franchise mode has received a boost via the EA Sports Locker, which is an online feature that will allow you to save your games online, as well as participate in Franchise games via the internet. This means you can now play a season with your friends across the country – a welcome addition indeed. If you have the PSP version of Madden 06 (no release date has been set) you'll be able to download your PS2 franchise onto your PSP and take it on the road, finally allowing you to do something productive while you are on a plane, in class, or on a conference call.
As is the case with Madden towards the end of a console's life, EA has focused on tweaking the gameplay, making minor upgrades to the sound and graphics, and generally not messing with success. The game is currently scheduled for an early August release.